October 17, 2017

Experimental Chinese - Lesson 1 | No characters, no tones


Hi, hello,
I am a Law school student,
My name is Wang Yinghong,
but you can call me A Hong.


Hai = hi
ni hao = hello
wo = me, I
shi = to be
falü xi = department of law, law school
de = apostrophe "s", of the kind
jiao = to call
jiu keyi le = it's good like that

One of the reasons why Mandarin Chinese is so difficult to learn is that there are too many things students have to deal with as beginners. We have the structure of the language which is very difficult in itself, but then in addition to that, there is the very challenging pronunciation, especially tones, Chinese characters, a ton of words students have to learn, unpredictable syntax, cultural aspects of the language etc. All of this makes the language very challenging. It's almost as if a person who's never been to the gym before would be asked to benchpress 150 Kg on their first try.

It is thus very difficult to get off the ground with the language and start 'learning it by using'. I think that two elements that might be removed from the process, to take some burden off of the beginner student, are Chinese characters and tones.

Recently I had to teach a Slovak friend of mine to say a fairly long text in Mandarin Chinese by heart and since we didn't have a lot of time we just concentrated on the most essential thing - him being understood. We dropped the characters, dropped the tones, even dropped pinyin and phonetically transcribed what he was supposed to say into whatever he thought he heard me say. We first corrected his transcription and his understanding of it so that we were sure he was getting the sounds right and then after he had memorized everything, we started to smooth out the tones where necessary. The results were amazing. After about 2 weeks of 20 minute daily studies, my friend was able to tell me about an A4's worth of very difficult Mandarin text by heart and I understood him perfectly. To me this was mind blowing. I remember very well how long it took us to do a similar thing as university students.

Of course learning something by heart and sounding well in Mandarin and saying something organically and sounding well in Mandarin are 2 different things, but I noticed a lot of very positive moments:

  • he learned a ton of vocabulary easily
  • he learned a ton of expressions easily
  • since he didn't know what tones were and wasn't told that tones were essential to being understood, his focus wasn't destroyed by constant syllable back-checking 
  • since he didn't know what tones 'looked like' (meaning he never saw the tonal charts every regular student of Mandarin is shown) he only pronounced what he heard, and not what he saw, which gave much much better results. (for anyone interested, here is an article I wrote about the subject here)
  • I managed to teach him how to remember the correct melody of the tone. Whenever he mispronounced something that was important in terms of being understood, I always told him: remember the correct melody I pronounced a while ago? Just pronounce that. 
These results we so surprising that I wanted to try to mimick something like this through an experimental course. I know that there are Japanese courses completely written in Roman letters, I know that there are websites written in Pinyin, but I'm not sure if there are any Pinyin-only courses and even less sure that there are courses without tones.

Just to clarify, I know tones and characters are very important, I also think it is important to teach them correctly, I just wanted to experiment a little bit and see whether a student could start without them and add them later on. 

When me and my Taiwanese friend were trying to come up with dialogues for this basic course we tried our best to:
  • make the course as functional, useful and effective as possible (sentences are mostly sourced from my basic language structures project and my word frequency lists
  • make it as contextual and real-life as possible - dialogues like these do happen in real life exactly as this
  • make it culturally appropriate (e.g. avoid the typical "how are you?/你好吗" mistake..no one in China actually asks that when they meet a person and instead say things a Chinese person would say in a given situation. More info in my talk for anyone interested) 

Benefits of a course like this

  • you can easily follow what is said (no characters)
  • you can concentrate on the structure of the language, learn and remember vocabulary and constructions easier
  • you progress faster and see results faster which is very motivating
  • you are bypassing the 'tonal-abyss' (constant pronunciation back-checking - a terrible habit most Mandarin students develop)
Let me know what you think. As I said in the video, the course is only experimental, I'll make a few videos to test how it works. If the feedback is good, I would love to make more.


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